The Christ, the Fall, and Echoes of Eden

It begins with the Fall and the introduc­tion of death and corrup­tion into the good world God has made. The ancient story is inscribed upon our hearts. Tempted by Satan, Adam and Eve partake of the forbidden fruit, plunge into a state of shame, alienation, and mortality, and are expelled from paradise. Cardinal Newman famously articulated the Christian intuition: “If there is a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence.”1 For our purposes, the precise nature of the original sin, as well as the mechanics of its transmission, is of only secondary import. What is critical is the impossibility of return, both for Adam and Eve and for us. Our eyes have been opened. We have lost our innocence and are trapped in a world of violence, wickedness, and sin. The way to the tree of life is barred by cherubim and flaming sword. The Fall is thus presented as historical event, one which might be dated on a timeline, if we possessed sufficient data. After the Edenic debacle, God launches his plan of salvation, beginning with the call of Abraham and the making of covenant; continuing with Israel and Torah, prophets, priests, and kings; culminating in the death and resurrection of the eternal Son and the outpouring of the Spirit. It’s all quite linear, moving from one day to the next under the providential governance of the Creator.

The traditional construal makes perfectly good sense and has well served the Church, but it has its problems. First of all, it seems to contradict what we might call the “plain” reading of the Old Testament. The biblical writers are, of course, well acquainted with the horror of death—how could they not be?—but they do not explain it by appeal to the original sin of the Edenic couple. Adam and Eve are presented as mortal beings who were given the opportu­nity to attain immortality yet by disobedience failed. Even so, the biblical writers appear to view death as a normal occurrence. As Fr John Behr notes:

Mortality, in fact, seems to be regarded as natural in the Old Testament. There are a couple of exceptions to the normal mortality of humans—Enoch (Gen 5.24) and Elijah (2 Kgs 2)—but they are the exceptions which prove the rule. In the Old Testament, death is not ubiquitously seen as a curse or a punishment for sin. In fact, the death of figures such as Abraham, whose lives are of significance for the unfolding of the narrative, are described in blessed terms: he “breathed his last and died in good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people” (Gen 25.8). Such a death, surrounded by children and their children, and completed with a proper burial, is seen as natural and right, a completion and fulfillment, and, indeed, even grants the perpetuity of the deceased’s name: “The days of a good life are numbered, but a good name endures forever” (Sir 41.13).2

Death as a metaphysical surd and enemy seems to be largely missing in the Old Testament. Men and women are mortal. Death is the natural conclusion of an existence that is hard and full of sorrow:

The years of our life are threescore and ten,
or even by reason of strength fourscore;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away. (Ps 90:10)

Death is also metaphorically identified as a power that challenges and threatens man: “The cords of death encompassed me,” bemoans the psalmist, “the torrents of perdition assailed me” (Ps 18:4). Perhaps the closest we come to Christian sensibility is found in the Wisdom of Solomon: “For God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it” (Wis 2:23-24).

Even more embarrassing to traditional catechesis is the Old Testament presentation of covenantal righteousness and obedience. The commandments are delivered to Israel with the understanding that they are the way of life and therefore doable. In the words of Moses:

And now, O Israel, give heed to the statutes and the ordinances which I teach you, and do them; that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, gives you. (Dt 4:1)

And again:

For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (Dt 30:11-14)

The Psalmists frequently rejoice in the gift and blessings of Torah:

The Lord is my portion;
I promise to keep thy words.
I entreat thy favor with all my heart;
be gracious to me according to thy promise.
When I think of thy ways,
I turn my feet to thy testimonies;
I hasten and do not delay
to keep thy commandments.
Though the cords of the wicked ensnare me,
I do not forget thy law.
At midnight I rise to praise thee,
because of thy righteous ordinances.
I am a companion of all who fear thee,
of those who keep thy precepts.
The earth, O Lord, is full of thy steadfast love;
teach me thy statutes! (Ps 119:57-64)

And when the people sin, God has generously provided the way of repentance and sacrifice. Jewish scholars have long told us that the conception of YHWH as a deity who imposes unfulfillable commandments in order to teach his people the depth of their sinfulness is a figment of Christian imagination. As the great Jewish scholar Claude Montefiore wrote back at the turn of the 20th century:

God to the Rabbis is certainly both Lawgiver and Judge, and even the Pauline Christian recognizes that there is such a thing as justice and judgment both in this world and in the next. But how can you call that Lawgiver stern and cruel who gives the laws for the benefit of his creatures, and who is ceaseless in his love for them, who pities them in their sorrows, and on the smallest pretext of repentance hastens to forgive them their sins?3

All of this changes, however, when we come to the New Testament. Whereas St Paul could look back on his pre-Christian existence as one of sinlessness before the Law (Phil 3:6), as a Christian he had come to see that God had “consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Rom 11:32). How did Paul get from there to here? He met his Savior on the road to Damascus!

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If the customary Christian understanding of “the Fall” (or at least some version of it) is not there in Genesis, or the Old Testament more generally, it certainly is there in the New Testament, in particular in the letters of the apostle Paul. But it is important here to acknowledge that what the apostle says about Adam’s sin is based on his prior conviction that Christ is the savior of all. When Paul was persecuting the Church, he did not think that he stood in need of the Savior that they proclaimed: “as to zeal, a persecutor of the Church, as to righteousness under the Law, blameless” (Phil 3.6). At this point, Paul was not waiting for a savior to deliver him from bondage to sin and death; at most the disciples were hoping for a political messiah, one who would restore the kingdom to Israel (cf. Lk 24.21; Acts 1.6). But then Christ confronted his persecutor in such a manner that, when his eyes were opened, he realized that God had acted in Christ to save the whole world, and so the only conclusion he could draw was that the world stood in need of salvation!4

We only look for an answer when we are confronted with a quandary. But in the Apostle’s case it was the other way round. As a zealous persecutor of the Jesus sect, Rabbi Saul knew that Torah had been given to the Jews as the way of life and sanctity. He did not need the gospel the apostate Christians were proclaiming. He was not an Augustine or Luther. He does not appear to have been afflicted with an introspective and anxious conscience. But then the risen Lord revealed himself to Saul. His life and beliefs were turned upside-down. If God had indeed raised the Nazarene from the dead, ahead of the general resurrection and against all expectation, then Paul had to understand why. The Apostle had been introduced to the solution; he now needed to identify the existential problem:

Put another way, the solution comes first, and then we begin to understand where the problem lies. Christ is . . . the first principle or hypothesis for all Christian theology. In the light of God’s action in Christ, the apostle Paul draws the typological parallel: “As sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, so death spread to all men because all men sinned” (Rom 5.12). While different theories have been advanced as to how death and sin spread to all human beings, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, it must never be forgotten that the basis for this claim is Christ’s work of salvation.5

Sin is no longer understood as a violation of Torah (or at least not simply as such) but more deeply as existence “‘in Adam’ rather than ‘in Christ,’ and the whole human race ‘in Adam,’ without Christ, can be described in St Augustine’s phrase as ‘one mass of sin,’ without implying a pessimistic view of humanity: it is the precondition of needing Christ, who comes to ‘call the righteous, but the sinners’ (Mt 9.13).”6 Those who have read E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism will immediately recognize the thesis: Paul does not begin with an analysis of the human condition and then proceed to offer Jesus as its solution. He begins with the crucified and risen Jesus and then apprehends all of reality through him. As Sanders puts it, Paul’s assessment of the plight of humanity is a “reflex of his soteriology.”7

Orthodox readers will be surprised by Behr’s openness to a Latin reading of Romans 5:12 (Vulgate: “Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world and by sin death: and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned”). Over the past many decades Orthodox apologists have stridently advanced their interpretation of eph ho (“because” rather than “in whom”) as a point of church-dividing difference, as if early Latin translators could not possibly have had plausible reasons for their reading. Behr thinks too much has been made of a single phrase: “Reading eph o as meaning ‘because of death,’ makes the pronoun play too many roles: it cannot, together with the preposition, be a contraction, meaning ‘because,’ and also refer back to ‘death,’ to say that ‘because of death all men have sinned.’ The verse simply says that death has still spread to all because all have sinned.”8 I will leave the exegetical debate to those who know their Koine Greek. Behr is not endorsing an Augustinian doctrine of corporate guilt. He is, rather, exhorting us to read the entirety of Scripture through the Crucified:

A properly theological cosmology and ‘history of salvation—the economy or the plan of salvation—begins with the Passion of Christ, and from this vantage point looks backwards and forwards to see everything in this light.9

By the death and resurrec­tion of Christ, we now know that which we could not other­wise have known: death is the enemy of mankind. In Adam we are its prisoners, dead in our sins and trespasses; but in Christ we are now victorious, raised unto eternal life.

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life!

The question of the Fall raises multiple difficulties for moderns. Given all that we know both about the universe (cosmology) and the development of life on our planet (evolu­tionary biology), how do we properly interpret the catholic claim that God is not the author of death? Why do reptiles and animals suffer and die when they appeared in history so much earlier than man? Lions eat lambs, sheep eat clover and forbs—they would not thrive if they did not. The good of one is achieved at the expense of an other. Life con­sumes life. Behr does not address questions like this, and I imagine he might well remind us that the Fall is neither a historical nor scientific claim. We confess the ancestral sin in faith as a truth of divine revelation. Only through the cross do we see the obscenity of death; only through Pascha do we apprehend death as a metaphysical catastrophe that should not be.

But the myth of a lost paradise haunts our dreams. As J. R. R. Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher:

Certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of “exile.”

Echoes of Eden reverber­ate throughout the stories of Scripture. St Maximus the Confessor provides the necessary demythologization: at the “very instant” Adam was created, he subjected himself to sensible things, thus corrupting his natural desire of God.10 The fall of man was instantaneous with his creation. In Behr’s words: “There never was a ‘time,’ for Maxi­mus, in which human beings did not stand in need of Christ.”11 This positing of humanity’s embrace of autonomy at the moment of its creation, as Fr Panteleimon Manoussakis elaborates, “allows him [Maximus] to avoid the problems of a (historical) time of perfection, while distinguishing between creation as created and creation as fallen, or put differently, between creation as being and creation as the theater of human action.”12 This distinction does not solve the aporia of evil, but perhaps it allows us to refocus our attention on Pascha as the foundation of theology. The end is given in the beginning; protology becomes eschatology. Manoussakis continues:

The story of the Garden of Eden is not descriptive but rather proleptic: it lets an echo of the end be heard in the beginning, as often in music one hears at the beginning of a composition a theme that will be developed only at the finale. It is, after all, for the sake of that end that the beginning begins. ‘For he who is initiated in the ineffable power of the resurrection has come to know the purpose for which God first established everything’ [Maximus, CT 1.66].13

Myth is gathered into the absolute truth that is the final future. Jesus is risen. The dream of paradise has been realized in the Mystery of Holy Eucharist. At the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, the faithful sing:

We have seen the true light!
We have received the heavenly Spirit!
We have found the true Faith!
Worshipping the undivided Trinity,
who has saved us.

(18 April 2017; rev.)

 

Footnotes

[1] John Henry Newman, Apologia pro Vita Sua, chap. 5; emphasis mine.

[2] John Behr, The Mystery of Christ (2006), p. 81.

[3] Claude Montefiore, “Rabbinic Judaism and the Epistles of St Paul,” Jewish Quarterly Review 13 (January 1901): 19.

[4] Behr, pp. 83-84.

[5] Ibid., p. 83.

[6] Ibid., pp. 84-85.

[7] E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977), p. 510.

[8] Behr, p. 112, n. 6.

[9] Ibid., p. 178.

[10] Maximus, Q. Thal. 61.85.

[11] Behr, pp. 78-79.

[12] Panteleimon Manoussakis, “St. Augustine and St. Maximus the Confessor between the Beginning and the End,” Studia Patristica 15 (2017): 8-9.

[13] Ibid., p. 9.

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